Former Secretary of State and current Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has proposed that in-state public college tuition (but not fees) be free for “working families” earning $125,000 or less by 2021, presumably the beginning of her second term in office.

What would happen if public college tuition were truly free for the families that Secretary Clinton would like to target with this proposal?

The more desired public colleges would become more selective.

Let’s say that every public college would charge no tuition to Secretary Clinton’s targeted audience. A prospective student’s inclination would be to try to pay no tuition, but also to try to gain admission to the “very best” school. That school could be the most “exclusive,” aka selective, the one that is the most reputable in the student’s intended major or possibly the one closest to the student’s home if s/he wants to commute instead of living on campus.

If the public college system made it easy for prospective students to apply, as many of the schools do through the Common Application, a university system application (as exists in the University of California system and the State University of New York, for example) or college-designed system (as Rutgers and Penn State use today) the volumes of applications to the more selective schools would rise dramatically as would those to schools that are the largest institution in a well-populated area.

Within New Jersey, as one example, applications to Rutgers-New Brunswick would certainly rise, as would applications to the College of New Jersey, Montclair State University and Rowan University; the last two attract commuters as well as residents. Many who might have gained admission to these schools in 2016 would not gain admission in 2021.

Why? Most likely, the freshmen classes at the schools would be the same size. A commitment to free public college tuition does not necessarily mean that the more popular public colleges would increase the sizes of their freshmen classes or invite more students to transfer for their sophomore or junior year.

Free public college tuition would have to be linked to strict requirements. 

While the early weeks of a presidential election race are not the best time for a candidate or surrogates to reveal details, the reality with free public college tuition is that there will need to be limits. The most practical would be to limit free public college tuition to 120 or 128 credits whether the student attends college part time or full time with some allowances for non-credit remediation courses to bring a student’s abilities up to college level. After this, the student has to pay or the college has to step in to assist using their state’s funds or their own aid to help cover costs.

During the 2015-16 academic year, resident students at only one flagship state university, the University of Wyoming, could have had their full tuition, as well as student fees, covered through the Pell Grant. On the flip side, the resident tuition and fees for either Penn State-University Park or the University of Pittsburgh could not have been covered by the Pell Grant and the state scholarship program run by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Authority. An economically disadvantaged student who lives in either Pennsylvania or Wyoming is still an economically disadvantaged student. But the graduate of Penn State-University Park or Pitt is likely to graduate more disadvantaged with debt than the graduate of the University of Wyoming.

The best model for free public college tuition would be for the school to take the Pell Grant as payment for tuition for the neediest students; they come from families that earn under $50,000 right now. The state and the college could then decide how they want to augment the Pell as they do now. To date, less selective public colleges offer incentives to encourage bright students who might ordinarily consider the more selective schools to consider attending a less selective one or going to a branch campus for the freshman or sophomore year. Penn State did this when the admissions office learned that the University Park campus would be over-enrolled for the coming academic year. 

I would have to know the costs for bringing families earning higher incomes into the Pell Grant program on a yearly basis to comment further. Secretary Clinton reported in briefing materials that a free public college tuition plan would cost $350 billion over ten years. Fortunately, she has said that free public college tuition should be need based. However, the income caps, first $85,000, then $125,000, appear to be too high. But it would be better to see the Federal Government use an existing program such as the Pell Grant to expand opportunities than to create a new program with a new bureaucracy to solve the problems as they happen.

Public colleges could not afford to reduce motivations towards student success. 

If public college tuition is free, the philosophy could become “if we lose a student, we can always get another.” I can imagine that this was the case when the University of California system charged no tuition until 1970 during Ronald Reagan’s first term as governor. Back then resident undergraduate students were charged an “educational fee” of $150 in addition to fees that the universities had charged since 1921 for “non-instructional purposes” including athletics as well as labs and health services.

No college president who has led successful initiatives in academic success and student engagement would want to back away from the work that made the school successful. Most likely all of the students would be asked to cover the costs, even those who would pay no tuition at all.

At the same time the leaders of the other public colleges that plan to invest more in their students will not want to fail at improving their retention and graduation rates.  They will need to find ways to charge for those services. A better academic advising program alone costs money as do better career development services. The leaders of the less selective public colleges would still be accountable for student success, especially if a government program has a greater impact at resolving problems of affordability.

The political will for free public college tuition would not always be there at the state level.

There are two concerns here that relate to free public college tuition.

The first is that a governor, especially one of the opposing party to a President Hillary Clinton, has the authority to propose education policy for their state. That governor will not want to cede any of that authority to a Federal agency. The wise governors would listen to the college presidents and trustees (especially the ones they appointed) before agreeing to participate in a program that has Federal money but also Federal strings attached. Most likely they would say no, as several Republican governors have done with Obamacare as well as Race to the Top.

Interestingly, the less expensive flagship state universities, for resident tuition and fees, are located in states led by Republican governors. Yes, there are more of them. Republicans are the chief public executive in 31 states. But of the ten states that have the lowest charges for resident tuition and fees, only one, Montana, has a Democratic governor. Of these ten states, Florida and North Carolina have exceptionally selective flagship state schools. The rest do not. While the flagships in both states, as well as other campuses, are very good at retaining and graduating their students, this is less true for the flagships in the other eight states. Only two, the University of Utah and the University of Mississippi, recently lost less than a fifth of their freshman classes.

The governors of the states that have low-tuition state schools with successful retention programs have little incentive to go along with a Federal program. The schools are succeeding without the money. The governors of the states that have low-tuition schools with less successful retention programs could be hesitant to take the money. The Department of Education could impose conditions upon them that could cost them, or the students who would have to pay, more money.

The second is that colleges do not get “love” when faculty or students,among others in a college community, say or do things that a governor does not like.

The media have amply covered such comments, for example when Pat McCrory, the governor of North Carolina, said that liberal arts majors should be charged more for their education because it did not lead directly to a job. Rick Scott, the governor of Florida, has made similar comments about anthropology majors. The reaction of a governor is often to stall the university’s appropriation, propose budget cuts or financial aid cuts, or to propose increases in tuition and fees. No governor of either political party wants to give up the authority to “punish” their public universities.

I realize why Secretary Clinton has released this proposal: she wants to attract the voters who supported Senator Bernie Sanders in the primaries and hopefully to unify the Democrats to win an election. That’s understandable. Neither Donald Trump nor Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate has proposed anything to help working students families manage college costs or debts. However, free public college tuition is a campaign promise that is unworkable and quite likely to be broken.

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